Utrecht: History & Music

July 26th, about halfway through the vacation. I was suffering through an unbelievable heat wave in The Hague (Den Haag), Netherlands. I was not enjoying myself. The heat was oppressive and causing me physical illness, and the transit in the Netherlands was without question the most obnoxious of the transit systems I have experienced in my life. However, Utrecht was a happy place that I truly enjoyed and may even brave the Netherlands again to visit. Not only was the city itself cute and bohemian in a “university town” kind of way, the exhibits I went to that day made me take several steps back and re-examine some of my perceptions of human history and development.


The Underground Tour

As an American, I didn’t grow up around places like this. I am sure that there are places in the US that have 2000 years of human occupation, but sadly the original colonizers did a very good job of erasing any traces of it. Perhaps as a result, I am eagerly curious about places on earth where the stories of humans can be traced back and retold over such vast stretches of time. I also love all things underground. The DomUnder was practically begging me to come and visit.

Dom Square in Utrecht boasts 2000 years of human occupation and I decided to go on a little tour of the archaeological dig site. The first stop on the tour was below the main office (where it was blissfully cool) to get some history lessons and watch a film.

They divided us into “English” and “Dutch” language groups. The English group was less than half native speakers, and was comprised mainly of people from other EU countries with a few Asians as well, all of whom were able to follow along in English, but not in Dutch. One more example of why ELF is so important!

The English guide gave us a good timeline overview of the square, walking us through the various stages of construction from Roman frontier fortress to modern day with a series of maps, drawings and photos to help us see the evolution. Then we all huddled together and watched a very dramatic short film about the square with actors in period dress and CG reconstructions of the architecture and the dramatic and destructive storm that reshaped the town.

2000 Years of History

Starting around 50 CE (that’s AD if you’re old), the site began it’s civilized life as a Roman fortress on the outskirts of the Empire. The Rhine river was, at the time, flowing through the area and just here it became shallow enough to cross. To defend the crossing point, a fortress, or castrum, was built.

Traiectum - Wttecht - Utrecht (Atlas van Loon)

Traiectum, the name of this castellum, was built mainly of wood with a stone wall surrounding it. It was burned down during the Revolt of the Batavi in 69-70 CE. The film we watched speculated that there may have been a romance and betrayal involved in the sacking of the fort, and that it was the wife of an officer who buried the gold later found by archaeologists below the lowest layer of burned wood.

Begrenzingskaart castellum Traiectum Utrecht Domplein Within 20 years, the Romans reclaimed it, and maintained power until about 270 CE when the Franks invaded. There isn’t any substantial change to the site for another 400 years, although evidence suggests that it was not abandoned, simply that the castellum was never rebuilt and any structures were temporary. You can still see the outline of where the old walls were built in the modern streets of Utrecht by looking down for some distinctive metal plates.

Around 630, the last of the Merovingians established a small abbey using the stone walls left by the Romans to enclose the grounds.

In 720, a chap named Willibrod who is intensely famous in the Netherlands and unknown everywhere else, established the church of St. Martin which more or less still stands today. He really loved preaching out in the frontier and was not always warmly received, having been driven out violently on at least one well known occasion by pagans who were not at all interested in this new-fangled religion he was peddling. He was canonized after his death.

The Vikings came through Europe between 857-920 in a rash of Church raiding. A lot of wealth was concentrated in churches and they were often poorly defended. St. Martin did not escape. Interestingly, there’s a viking rock on display in the square today, although I’m not sure if it’s from the time of these invasions or from a later time after the Nordic countries had converted to Christianity.

Around the turn of the millennium, the church was once more destroyed, but this time by a fire. The rebuild was inspired by the Roman round arch style. Shortly after the Emperor built a palace within the walls of the old Roman castellum (yes, where the cathedral is) and there was a bit of state vs church argy-bargy over who had ultimate authority. It seems the Emperor and the Bishop wouldn’t share an entrance from their residences into the cathedral and so two separate entrance halls were built.

In 1253 there was, shock and surprise, another huge fire that destroyed nearly everything (that’s at least 3 by now). During the subsequent reconstruction, the church transformed into a proper French Gothic cathedral completed in 1267 and the famous church tower (see below for more on that) was built in the mid 1300’s.

Dom voor storm (retoucheerd)
Things go along fairly peacefully until 1647 when an enormous and devastating storm swept through the town. My subsequent research says a tornado, but the reconstructions and explanations I experienced that day in Utrecht made it seem much more like a thunder and lightning with extremely high winds kind of storm. Either way, it was so bad that the townsfolk seriously questioned what they had done to incur the wrath of God, because nothing outside the Bible even compared.

The wind (tornado or otherwise) completely destroyed the nave of the cathedral that connected the tower to the rest of the structure. The nave was not small. You can see from drawings how much of the space it took up, and in heavy stone with Gothic arches, gargoyles and other bits of stone crenelation all over the place. It was flattened. Rubble. The people of Utrecht were devastated and although the city continued to function, no one cleaned up after the storm for 150 years.

NIMH - 2011 - 0518 - Aerial photograph of Utrecht, The Netherlands - 1920 - 1940

Even when cleanup began, it was little more than clearing the rubble and a few halfhearted attempts at restoration. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that there were serious efforts to return the cathedral and tower to their former glory. The nave was never rebuilt and it is that space that is now the main square of Utrecht between the church and tower.

The Dig Site

Armed with this historical perspective, we trooped back upstairs and headed into the main square where a hole opened up to lead us down into the dig site.

Here we were given “interactive flashlights” that we could use not only to see, but also to trigger the audio tour in our headsets. I like headset audio tours much better than trying to listen to a single guide, so I admire the choice, however, this was maybe a little too interactive. We had to find these tiny little RF chips tucked in amid the displays and aim the light at them to trigger the audio file to play. The chips weren’t labeled and there was no way to know if I got them all or missed any since a single display could have 1-3 chips in it. It was a little like playing hidden picture in real life. Here you can see one nestled among some old Roman artillery.

Despite the hunt and peck games, the displays were absolutely fun. There were two more mini movies underground, including one meant to replicate the storm itself, and the rest were pieces of the actual dig sites that had been left for display.

There were walls from the original fortress. There were tools and pottery and jewelry from the Romans. There were pieces of clay tiles with cat prints in them, proving cats have been walking on wet paint, wet cement, and wet clay forever.

There were the support pillars of the cathedral, and remnants of the rubble of the catastrophe of the storm. There were even earlier dig crew’s archaeological tools that got left for a few decades. Plus the immortal remains of at least one Bishop (probably).

I could have stayed much longer mulling over the details, but as always, I was the last person trailing behind the tour group and the guides politely reminded me that the tour was over as I was taking photos of the last few displays. Returning to the surface, I had a whole new perspective of the square in which I stood, seeing now in my minds eye the layers and layers of construction and destruction that shaped it for over 2000 years. Will someone stand in Washington DC or New York city in 2000 years and marvel at the capacity for human growth, change and tenacity? I hope so.

Church, Gardens, Tower

Although I had accidentally meandered through the gardens at St. Martin’s between the bus stop and my tour start, once I finished the tour I was eager to have a closer look at both the cathedral and the tower. The tower is the tallest church tower in the Netherlands, and I think the tallest building in Utrecht. It stands 112m tall and if you want to see the view from the top it’s 465 stairs (no lift). I admired it greatly… from the ground.

The cathedral is undeniably French Gothic. It could have been picked up and moved over from France. Beautiful stained glass windows, impossibly high arches, and a great deal of overly grotesque carving including gargoyles, skeletons and dead dudes.

It’s not that I’m tired of looking at cathedrals, but I did reach a point in Europe where one French Gothic cathedral began to look rather like all the rest. It’s interesting because in modern architectural design, international companies like McDonald’s and Starbucks want their stores to all look the same on the inside because they want to establish a brand and also that their customers would feel comfortable with the familiar, even in an unfamiliar city. Now, I’m not suggesting that the Catholic Church is the McDonald’s of the middle ages… no, wait, I am… And since the average human didn’t travel more than 20 miles from home their whole lives back then, the only people this was meant to appeal to would be the ruling and priestly classes, so they can go to church anywhere and it’s always the same.

The Speelklok Museum

This is a museum dedicated to self playing instruments and music machines that pre-date the gramophone and other recording devices invention and rise to musical dominance. The museum roughly covers the time from 1750-1950, but focuses mainly on the Victorian and Edwardian periods (1840-1910). It opened my eyes to the history of music and music technology in a whole new way and made me completely re-evaluate my ideas of change and progress in the modern world. I couldn’t fit it all into a single post with the rest of Utrecht. If you haven’t already read the whole story, you can follow this link.

Is That a Theremin or Are You Just Happy to See Me?

My final moments in Utrecht, I stopped into a cafe for a sandwich and a nice iced latte. The Netherlands is not so snooty as France when it comes to putting ice in coffee, and I was grateful for their lack of coffee-purity during the unrelenting heat wave. I was sitting upstairs, trying to imagine a breeze through the open window and taking notes on my phone about the thoughts swirling in my head after my visits to the Underground and the Speelkloks when suddenly I realized that the music I was hearing in the background was a Theremin.

Not everyone would know this strange instrument either by sight or by sound, but due to an odd quirk of my proclivity for learning peculiar information and my ability to involuntarily remember completely useless trivia, I recognized the sound before I even realized I was hearing it. It was as though some part of my brain whispered “theremin”, and my conscious train of thought stopped and said “what?” before registering what my ears were hearing.

I had only ever heard recordings of the theremin, but I was sure that was what I was hearing and as soon as I realized the sound came from the street, I peered out the window. Lo and behold, on the street below was a middle aged man in a bright blue Hawaiian shirt busking for change with a theremin.

A few minutes later, he was joined by another gentleman who sat down on the ground and pulled a sitar from it’s case and began to tune it. Another instrument not readily recognizable, at least not to those who are not from South Asia. I first learned about it from the Beatles of course, since they became entranced by it’s sound after visiting India. It is also a unique and (outside India) fairly obscure instrument.

So there I am, staring down at two middle aged hipsters with the most unlikely instrumental duet I have ever heard of, and they’re good. Not like philharmonic good, but the theremin is a HARD instrument and I don’t really think the sitar is a piece of cake, so “good” is a major accomplishment and thousands of hours of practice. And there they are, on the street, playing for coins. Of course I contributed to the growing pile of money in the sitar case (pay your artists!), and if you like what you hear, I even made sure to get the band name so you can support them yourself. They are called Guau! (pronounced “wow”) and they are from Spain. You can get the album here.


For those of you playing the home game, I’m finally finished with final exams and the complex grading math that is the end of semester excel spreadsheet. I’m stuck in Korea until January 9th, when I’ll be embarking on another long trek. I’ve been so busy with work (and art) that the blog has been very slow, so I’m going to do my best to churn out a double handful of posts to leave you with before the next big adventure begins. Hope you enjoyed Utrecht, and as always, thanks for reading. Happy Holidays and Merry New Year!

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The Ruins in Ghent

Although I only stayed overnight in a handful of cities last summer, I often made day trips to nearby smaller, quainter European towns along the way. While travelling in Belgium, everyone says “go to Bruges, go to Bruges” and I thought about it, but that damn heat wave… Instead, I went to a similar quaint, canal-ridden, castle-bearing, sleepy little sidewalk-cafe-having town called Ghent. There I had one of the most stunning photographic opportunities and most memorable experiences of the whole trip.


I prioritized Ghent over Bruges for my small town detour for one main reason: the ruins of the Abbey of Sint Bavo. As I learn more about the history and development of churches and cathedrals in Europe, I’ve come to realize that there are not that many styles. About 7 (I’m not counting Revival and Modern, fite me). And of those 7, I’d say that 3 are the most common and distinct in the places I visited: Romanesque, Gothic, and Baroque. They’re stunning! High arches and flying buttresses, lots of fiddly bits on the architecture and beautiful decorations. However, churches within the same style are not overly unique unless you are an architectural scholar. I have now seen nearly a dozen Gothic style cathedrals, and I would be hard pressed to tell them apart without other landmarks.

Am I jaded? I don’t think so, because I do still think they’re stunning, I just don’t feel the need to prioritize another Gothic or Romanesque cathedral. I’ll go and admire one if I’m going to be in the neighborhood, but I don’t put it on my “to-do” list anymore. I might still go see a few more Baroque ones before I’m tired of that style, and I’m quite looking forward to seeing more Byzantine. What I do love is finding the cathedrals (or other historical landmarks) that are unique in some way, that bear the mark of history, of a life lived.

The Abbey of St. Bavo promised to be just that. Ruins left unrestored yet maintained, and only open to the public a few hours a week to prevent them from being damaged further. I was fascinated and determined to go. I found the opening hours and even emailed the caretakers to be sure I didn’t need a reservation, and then set about making sure I would be in Ghent on a day I could go inside.

This turned out to be a Sunday, which meant Ghent was even sleepier than normal. I’ve been living in Asia so long that I forgot about Sunday as an off day in the West. Although, to be perfectly honest, I think that western Europe closes down even more than America on Sundays. Live and learn.

I looked into transit options (oh how I gnash my teeth at the transit of EU countries, but that’s another post) and found a “hop on hop off” boat! I’ve done hop on hop off buses before, but this would combine my desire to take a canal tour with my need to get around town. For the moment, lets just skip the challenges involved with getting from my Airbnb in Brussels to the main boat jetty in Ghent. Wave your magic wand, and there we are. The last bus of the series let me off directly in front of Gravensteen Castle where my day of “quaint European town” began.

Gravensteen Castle

I studied the boat tour schedule. It only had 6 stops and it was an hour between boats so I wanted to be sure I knew where to go and when to be back to get on for the next leg of my journey. I wanted to start at the castle, hoping to explore it before the boat even started running that morning. For those of you who imagine European castles as these lonely stone fortresses in the middle of rolling green hills and woodland, let me disillusion you. The Lord’s Castle was the center of town. Back in the feudal days, serfs worked the land around a castle, but the markets would be held within the castle’s courtyard. Also during times of war or bad weather, people would move in bringing families and livestock with them to be safe behind the walls while Vikings or whoever attacked.

In some cases, those castles and farms were left empty for long enough that you get the Disney picturesque castle in the middle of nature. For many places, the castle continued to function as the center of town as the town got bigger and bigger around it, eventually turning into a modern city. In Ghent, it’s a giant fuck off castle in the middle of everything. You can’t actually get far enough away for even a proper photo because it’s so surrounded by traffic and other buildings. It dramatically changes the atmosphere of the public square to have a giant castle overseeing the open air restaurants and sidewalk cafes, though.

Canal Boat Bus

I checked into the boat bus and grabbed some coffee. I also topped up my water bottle at a decorative public drinking fountain. I saw these in several places during the summer. They look like a small artistic fountain, similar to what you might put in your back garden at home if you’re feeling fancy, but they dispense potable water (they have signs, don’t drink out of fountains without signs). Additionally, there is usually a little bowl at the bottom so dogs out for a walk can get a drink, too. It’s a wonderful way to provide a public service of free drinking water (not common enough in Europe if you ask me) while still beautifying the park or public street.

The canals in Ghent are truly beautiful and the hop on/off tour goes father through the canal infrastructure than than most of the other boat tours on offer. Our driver was young and friendly and spoke English well. Perhaps because it was Sunday there were not many other tourists, so we chatted about Game of Thrones and Harry Potter as well as the city itself.

I skipped several of the stops because I was still worn out from Paris and the heat wave, but I chose 3 to get off and have a look around. My sightseeing was somewhat hindered by the massive stages being constructed all along the main street and public squares. My guide informed me that the following week would host a huge festival in town. I’m not actually sad I missed it, since I never had enough energy that trip for crowds, so it worked out for the best.

Saints, Dragons and Devils!

I visited St. Peter’s cathedral, which was very predictable and yet still pretty. There was a woman with two children sitting just inside the door and begging. She was not the first begging immigrant/refugee I saw during my travels by any means. I tried to give when I could, although I still struggle with giving money. I’ve read a number of ethics debates about this topic and still can’t decide, so I gave them the food I had in my bag that I’d been planning to eat for lunch.  

Having given away my picnic, I went in search of another snack, but nearly everything in Ghent was closed on Sunday afternoon.  I was attracted by a nearby sign advertising waffles, waffles I never found. Instead, I ran into an art installation of dragon skeletons which was far more interesting. While I was taking photos, someone came by and asked me if they were real and almost didn’t believe me when I said “no, they’re dragons”, until he read the small informative sign. They were part of a display for a children’s museum. 

 

Continuing through the inner courtyard, I emerged behind the cathedral at the abbey where I found the orchards and vineyards and a less obscured view of the buildings.

From the boat I got a good view of the castle of Gerald the Devil. I was initially disappointed that I didn’t get to go inside, but it turns out that nowadays the building is not actually interesting on the inside. Gerald himself was nicknamed “the devil” (Duivelsteen in Belgian) because of his dark complexion and hair color. He didn’t do anything remotely devilish to earn the moniker. Additionally, while the building has an interesting history ranging from a meeting place for knights to an insane asylum, it was most recently used to house the national archives. According to Wikipedia, it’s not even good at doing that, and has been on the market since 2010. Cool name, though.

Lunch Stop, the Soda that Yodels

I got off the boat again at the stop nearest St Bavo’s and immediately set about finding lunch. This was a bit extra challenging since I was also suffering from mobile data issues that day (another post is forthcoming). I can usually get Google Maps to work just on GPS, you can’t plan a route, but you can usually see where you are but suddenly I had no map at all! No where in my plan did I account for this. You can say what you like about guidebooks or paper maps, but suddenly having my GPS not work is no different than loosing your map or guide book unexpectedly.

I had given away my picnic lunch already, and I should have just gone into a Carrefour to replace it for a similarly low cost meal, but I was freaking out about my map, since I needed it to find St. Bavo’s, and I really wanted to sit somewhere cool and comfortable after so much walking in the hot sun.

I found a burger place called Jack’s. I splurged on the set and got fries and a drink and tried a drink I’ve never heard of before. It was described as “an herbal drink” and the best way I can describe it is as an herbal infused sparkling lemonade. I have since researched the drink Almdudler and learned that it is the national soft drink of Austria, that it is named after yodeling in the alpine pasture, and that it no more has a description of it’s flavor than Dr. Pepper. Seriously, try and explain what that tastes like to someone who’s never had it. Anyway, I liked it more than Dr. Pepper.

The burger and fries were huge and the cashier gave me some extra sauce because I couldn’t make up my mind about the flavor. I did start learning to love mayo on fries while in Belgium, but I think that’s because their mayo was so much better than Hellman’s. It took me a long time to finish eating, and I wrapped half the fries up for later.

     

I drastically overspent on lunch, since a good deli sandwich and a drink can be had from any grocery store around for close to 5€. It’s another lesson in planning. I did get to use the WiFi and the restroom, which are otherwise pay-to-use in most public places in Europe. (oh how I missed the free public restrooms in every subway station in Korea)

Sint Bavo’s Abbey

My map came back to life in the restaurant’s WiFi and I was able to plot the route from Jack’s to St. Bavo’s before leaving.  When I crossed the last bridge (canal towns have a lot of bridges), I could see what I was pretty sure was the right place but no visible way in. It looked to be completely surrounded by a fence. I walked clear around the perimeter in search of the entrance. Tragically, I went the wrong way and went nearly all the way around before finding it. On the way out later, it was obvious that if I’d headed straight to the square white building, I would have found the gap in the fence right away. You know, in case you end up going some day.

At first I was surrounded by a maze of tall rectangular trees. Completely befuddled I took a few pictures in hope of solving the mystery later (spoilers, I did). In many of my travels, I don’t worry too much if I don’t know what something is at the moment I encounter it. I just try to take enough reference pictures amid my artistic ones to do more research later. Research is how I make the holiday last longer. I visited this abbey in July, and here it is the end of November while I do the last of my research about it.

The ruins themselves were everything I hoped and more. Inside the walls of the Abbey was a rambling network of crumbling walls and once-rooms bring reclaimed by nature. I forgot my physical discomfort almost at once and began to take photo after photo, pausing between sets to admire the details of centuries old carvings and stonework.

I walked through courtyards and down hallways and found spiders and snails and bumble bees in the flowers, and the wild berries. I found where stone carvings had fallen from walls or been pried from floors and were laid side by side on display. There were beautiful corridors with arched ceilings, rooms that had lost their ceilings and now we’re indistinguishable from courtyards.

There was a Roman style bath area with a secret winding staircase up the short tower where the remains of an art installation collected dust. Someone had done a project through social media about communication online and all the responses were published in newspaper form. Perhaps once they were there for visitors to take away, but the layers of dust and cobwebs told me it had been a while since anyone had looked at them. 

About halfway around the space, I met up with a table of volunteers who had informative booklets in many languages. One helpful lady explained a little about the places I’d seen and then showed on the map where I would go from there. I thanked her very much and took the booklet off to a bench in the shade to look through it and to take pictures of the articles for reference.

I didn’t read the whole thing at the time but I did discover the purpose of the tree maze out front was to outline walls of the original church, now long gone. While reading the history of the abbey, I was approached by a black cat who very desperately wanted to be friends. Sadly I’m allergic and had to decline the offer for pets, but I took pictures instead.

When I finished skimming and recording the brochure information, I headed up a far less secret stairwell and went inside a space that had retained all its walls and ceiling. I was greeted by a huge and looming partial crucifix. The cross and arms were gone, leaving only the faded wooden head and body of the suffering Jesus gazing down the stairs at those who entered.

Monastic chanting was piped through a hidden sound system, giving an appropriately medieval and gloomy air to the dark and gutted room. The walls were lined with rescued stone carvings of saints and martyrs, but rather than being the main display, they served as the walls upon which a modern photography exhibit was mounted. It was a strange contrast to see the brightly colored photos against the dark and crumbling remains of the abbey’s old artwork, all topped off with the eerie and Gothic music.

Moving back into the sunlight I continued to be awed by the variety of spaces. Wild grapes growing along one wall, pieces of statues littering the grass or reassembled in part and mounted wherever space allowed. I wandered until my feet couldn’t take it, then I sat until I could walk again. Even with many other visitors it was overwhelmingly peaceful and stunningly beautiful. Only when I felt like I’d explored every possible inch did I out to catch the last boat back to the town center and my train back to Brussels.

I took so many beautiful pictures that afternoon, please enjoy the video slideshow.

A Short History Even Shorter

The binder I was given had a map of the grounds, and 8 typed pages of information. About half of that was a detailed description of the rooms, including architectural style, building materials, and original use. I am not an architect, I couldn’t actually follow most of this part without my eyes glazing over. The second part was more interesting to me, since it encompassed a brief history of the abbey. I am not going to try to replicate the same level of detail here. If you REALLY need to know, comment, and I’ll post the photos of the pages I took, but for everyone else, here’s the very short ‘short history’.

7th century: Missionaries showed up to convert people. They built an abbey with the backing of the Merovingians. A rich nobleman became a monk and went off to live as a hermit, taking the name Bavo. After his death, his remains were transferred to the abbey which subsequently bears his name.

9th century: Vikings! Not yet converted Nordic types were still raiding the land, and loved to raid churches cause people donated like mad, and also decorated with lots of silver, gold and other valuable things. Way to put your money far away from the soldiers, guys. Vikings burned it all down. Twice.

10-12th century: The Roman Empire finds Ghent is on it’s side of the river and offers Imperial protection at last (meanwhile poor St. Peters which I visited earlier that day was left on the French side!) Under the shining eye of Rome, the abbey was not only safe, but experienced a period of growth, getting lots of beautiful Romanesque architecture which makes up the majority of the stone ruins seen today.

16th century: Charles V is rude. He pulled off a bunch of shenanigans to embarrass and shame the locals of Ghent, culminating in the ordered destruction of the abbey, and the use of it’s building materials to create a military citadel. The citadel was completed in 1545, but was destroyed in 1577 by the Calvinists, then rebuilt again in 1584 by the Spanish. It underwent nearly constant de- and re-construction until it was finally abolished in the mid 19th century.

19th-20th century: Conservationists had to fight against industrialists for the space. There’s a whole sordid affair over the meat merchants’ iron grip on Ghent during the 19th century and they managed to claim the abbey land for an abattoir at the height of their power. After much cajoling by conservationists, the abbey ruins were given to the city of Ghent on the condition a museum was established on the site in 1887. In 1936 the ruins were made a historical monument by Royal Decree; however, the abattoir remained in operation until 1989.

Now: The Neighbors of the Abbey formed in 2007 as a volunteer group to upkeep the museum and to organize visits for tour groups and solo travelers like myself.